The Castles and Palaces of Sintra, Portugal. Part 1.

Sintra is a beautiful and magical town and UNESCO World Heritage Site located outside of Lisbon in the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. Its romantic, fairytale castles and palaces hidden amongst the mystical lush forests create an enchanting atmosphere that transports you back in time through one thousand years of history.

From the Celts in ancient times to the Moors in the 10th century, who built or resided in the Castelo dos Mouros fortress at the top of the Sintra mountain; To the Templar knights and the 15th century when the town became a summer residence for Portugal’s royal family and elite to build their dream palaces; To  the 18th and 19th centuries when the town became a European centre for the ‘Romantic’ movement in the arts.

This rich amalgamation of historical influences have resulted in the array of spectacular castles and palaces interspersed throughout the Sintra hills, waiting to be discovered.

We have outlined below some of the most important castles and palaces of Sintra to help you decide what to visit as part of your visit to this magical place, depending on how much time you have to spend here.

Pena Palace

Straight out of a fairy tale, the spectacular Palácio Nacional da Pena is located at the highest point in the Sintra Hills, and considered the most important cultural site in Sintra. With its brightly coloured red and yellow towers, this magnificent castle was built in the 19th century for Queen MariaII’s husband, Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. It combines an eclectic mix of architectural styles, inspired by European Romanticism with Moorish influences.

The site was originally a 12th century chapel, Our Lady of Pena, extended into a Hieronymite Monastery in the 15th century by King Manuel I. Reduced to ruins with the earthquake of 1755, the site was then abandoned until Ferdinand transformed it into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family.

Dom Fernando II, the King-Artist as he became known in Portugal, was one of the most cultured men in the country, shunning politics in favour of the arts, his lifetime passion. Enamoured with Sintra, he acquired the Monastery of Saint Jerome, then in ruins, as well as the 85 hectares of lands surrounding the property.   Following Queen Maria II’s death in 1853, Ferdinand married his mistress Elise Hensler, an opera singer and the Countess of Edla. Together, they built the Chalet of the Countess of Edla located in the Park of Pena.

King Carlos I and Queen Amelia then held the final phase of residence at the Palace in the early 20th century, along with their son, Manuel II until leaving in exile for Gibraltar following the Declaration of the Republic in 1910.

The Parque da Pena reflects the magical and romantic character of the palace, where you can explore the twisting paths and appreciate the stunning views. Ferdinand planted tree species from every continent rendering it the most important botanical garden in Portugal, with the Garden of Camellias a significant collection, designed by the French gardener Bonard. The camellia trees flower and drop their petals in the winter, adding to the natural beauty and appeal of visiting the park off-season.

Points of Interest

  • Tour the interior of the Palace and visit the terrace cafe – get there early to avoid the long queues.
  • The walk around the castle walls which has beautiful views over Sintra and the Moorish Castle.
  • Take your time to explore the terraces and gardens of Pena Park. Don’t miss the romantic gardens of the Queen’s Fern Valley and the Valley of the Lakes. The Temple of Columns and Little Birds Fountain nestled among the exotic groves are beautiful small buildings also of historical importance.
  • The Grotto of the Monk, a former site of retreat and meditation for the religious community of the Monastery of Pena and St. Catherine’s Heights, an excellent viewing point of the palace featuring a seat sculpted from rock, the Queen’s Throne, another of Queen Amelia’s favourite places.
  • The High Cross marks the highest point of the Sintra hills with spectacular views across to the ocean.

Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros)

On one of the highest peaks in the Sintra hills opposite Pena Palace stands the ruins of the Castelo dos Mouros, an impressive fortress that was built in the 10th century by the Moors during the time of their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.

Built to provide protection over Sintra and the surrounding territory, it fought off many attempted invasions until it eventually fell to the Knight Templars in 1147. Sintra was handed over to Afonso Henriques, the first King of Portugal, following the conquest of the cities of Lisbon and Santarém who strategically placed the town in the hands of Gualdim Pais, a master in the Knights Templar in 1154.

The castle then remained neglected during the subsequent era of Portuguese kings, until the 19th century when King Ferdinand II ordered its restoration through his passion for the arts and the middle ages.

Today, the famous walls remain, providing spectacular views over Sintra town, the Pena Palace and further across the hills to the Atlantic Ocean. Hidden inside the walls is an ancient Moorish cistern. The castle has been undergoing archaeological excavation and still uncovers numerous discoveries in relation to the history of this site and its many inhabitants.

Points of Interest

  • The main draw here is the walk through the winding walls across the hilltop to admire the extended views, and a perfect place to watch the sunset at the end of the day once the crowds have left.
  • A small museum exhibits some of the artefacts found in the castle.

Quinta da Regaleira

Amongst the hilltop gardens of Sintra lies the fairytale estate of Quinta da Regaleira, an incredible homage to the Templar Knights, featuring a mix of Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish and Renaissance architecture.

The castle palace was built in the 20th century and belonged to Viscondessa da Regaleira. It subsequently has had many owners over the decades, but it was António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, one of the wealthiest men in Portugal at the turn of the 20th century who made the estate what it is today.

Monteiro had a deep interest in, and was quite likely an initiate of, the Knights Templar, a Christian order with roots dating to the early 12th Century.

While the group is believed to have disbanded 700 years ago, certain groups, like the Freemasons, revived the medieval group’s rituals and traditions centuries later. Monteiro commissioned the Italian architect Luigi Manini to create the property and landscape brimming with pagan and Christian symbolism between 1904 and 1910.

The property consists of a Romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite symbolic constructions. An extensive system of tunnels and underground walkways connect the caves beneath.

Points of Interest

  • Tour the interior of the palace.
  • Explore the gardens and the outside of the house as a highlight of this magical place.
  • The mythical Initiation Well used for Templar initiations and rites of passage.
  • Climb to the top of the Regaleira Tower for views of the Moorish Castle and surrounding countryside down to the coast.

National Palace of Sintra (Palacio Nacional)

Located at the heart of the historical town of Sintra, the Palacio Nacional is defined by its unmistakable white silhouette formed by its two conical chimneys that rise above the landscape. It is one of the best-preserved royal palaces in the country, and the only one that spans the entire history of Portugal.

A series of buildings that were adapted over the course of many centuries, the architecture elegantly combines its blend of Gothic, Manueline, Moorish, and Mudéjar styles, and is an important historic and heritage site. Built in the Middle Ages and enlarged in the 1600s, the building today is almost the same as it was then, deriving from the renovations undertaken during the reigns of kings Dinis, João I, Manuel I and João III.

The castle was originally the seat of the Islamic Taifa of Lisbon, the Moorish rulers of the region for over three centuries. Then named Chão da Oliva, it was constructed around the 10th or 11th century, although none of the original building remains today.

The conquest of Lisbon in 1147 by Afonso Henriques marked the end of Muslim rule in Central Portugal, where the castle then remained in the hands of Portuguese nobility until the 19th century. The Palace and town of Sintra and the surrounding lands were granted to Queen Elizabeth in 1287 by King Dinis, where the gifting of Sintra and its palaces to queens had become a standard practice. The revolution of 1910 led to an abrupt end to the time of royal residency with Queen Maria Pia, widow of King Luís, the last monarch to live in the Palace before escaping into exile.

Points of Interest

  • Tour the interior of the Palace, particularly the Arab Room, Queen Maria Pia and Afonso VI’s Chambers, Central Patio and Water Grotto and the Chapel.
  • The organisation of the rooms followed a social hierarchy, beginning with the Swan Room, open to everybody who entered the palace. Access to the following rooms became progressively more selective, culminating in the Apartments of the King or Queen. Only certain members of the high nobility, the clergy or important foreign ambassadors would ever make it as far as the Magpie Room or Golden Chamber.
  • In the 17th century, Alfonso VI was imprisoned by his brother Pedro II in the palace for nine years to the time of his death. Incarcerated in 1674 in the room that today bears his name, following six years in exile on Terceira Island, in the Azores where he had been sent by his brother who deemed him incapable of ruling.
  • Allow the time to stroll around the beautiful Gardens of the National Palace which extend across a series of Palace terraces and are framed by magnificent views.

Visiting the Sights – Practical Tips

  • Save time – Some of the main castles and palaces of Sintra are spread across hills and mountains. Booking a driving tour offers a more convenient way to visit all the sights, whilst saving time by avoiding the crowded buses or queuing for tickets to the castle and palaces.
  • Set out early to avoid the afternoon crowds, and factor at least 1-2 hours for each sight, allowing extra time if you wish to relax and explore the surrounding parks and gardens.
  • Longer Stay – Allow at least 2 days to visit all the main sights, but it’s worth setting aside longer and staying in one of the best hotels in Sintra if you want to explore the natural park, historic towns and beautiful wild coastline the region has to offer.
  • Day trip – if you only have enough time for a day tour to Sintra from Lisbon, you can decide which sights you want to visit and choose an itinerary that suits you best. Other stops can be included, such as Cabo da Roca and Cascais, but this would allow less time in Sintra.

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